Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Keeping Common Species Common: Thoughts on Mooallem’s Wild Ones

“I like raccoons. I can’t understand why they’re so underappreciated—not detested like rats or opossums maybe, but not known for delivering thrills either. They’re surely one of the most cuddly looking and admirable synanthropes—what biologists call species that succeed in the human environment.” –Jon Mooallem, Wild Ones (p. 260)

One of the current favorite stuffed animals of my daughter is a little raccoon named Starlight.  We frequently see raccoons (real ones) in our backyard and it is why Starlight had such appeal when my daughter was making her stuffed animal selection in the Smoky Mountains. We also have a beloved skunk living under our deck, which we rarely see but frequently smell, and opossums and deer are also regular interlopers in our yard.  We occasionally see signs of fox or coyotes (i.e., scat—another of my child’s obsessions). And of course squirrels.  Lots of squirrels.  We’ve been live-trapping Peromyscus in our house with the change in weather (apparently our five cats have other things to do) and there are quite a few indicators that the moles have a virtual city beneath the surface of our yard.  This is part of the mammal diversity of our neighborhood. It is our household’s philosophy to love what is common, as much as what is scarce.

Mooallem’s Wild One brings up the strangeness of valuing species only when they are near their evolutionary end.  The examples of trying to save a butterfly or a crane species when the numbers are down to dozens does seem like a futile effort and highlights how failure to protect what is common ends up in difficult and sometimes awkward situations.  (Mimicking the mating dance of a crane in order to get a sperm sample that can be shipped to a zoo to inseminate a female of the beleaguered species?  The horror.)  I am reminded of Elizabeth Kolbert’s comments that many of the species on the verge of extinction today (as well as the Pleistocene mammals) have natural histories and life histories that make them inherently susceptible to extinction when they live on a planet with humans.  The story of the characters involved in saving the butterflies and cranes often ends with a kind of hopelessness and acknowledgement of an unavoidable failure—but a species at the point where intervention becomes necessary is already in a precarious situation—that we save any of them from immediate extinction is actually somewhat surprising. While there have been success stories, it is hard to wonder what the long-term success will be given the price that has been paid in genetic diversity, isolation from other populations, and the abundance within  and between populations. It’s like opening Anna Karenina and reading:  “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  What is the probability that this story is going to have a happy ending?  The stories in Wild Ones of the polar bear, Lange’s metalmark, and the whooping crane have an even lower probability of a happy ending than poor Anna.

I am torn between the two ideas that, on the one hand, symbolic efforts matter, and on the other hand, we need to be realistic and triage our efforts. What would we do in a war zone (of which my knowledge stems from watching reruns of M.A.S.H.)?  Do you want doctors to make symbolic efforts to save a person that is likely past saving or is triage essential to save more lives?  Of course, it’s not actually a war zone in the US, at least—we have 7.3 billion people on planet earth, and we have more than enough people who could help bring back species that are on the brink of extinction—and the humans may benefit from that effort as well. However, in the medical field, it is preferred to avoid a crisis by focusing on preventive care.  But we seem to lack an appreciation for preventative care with wildlife.  My neighbors do not appreciate the presence of the raccoons, opossums, or (especially) skunks, which puts the common species in the community around us at risk.

In the biodiversity crisis, it does seem like the other war zone analogy is that conservationists are learning as they go—they are trying to save species in the absence of the necessary information and sometimes without adequate resources. Certainly that appeared to be the case in all three of the stories in Wild Ones. There is often a limited ability to do the needed sorts of experiments to determine best practices for some species. The crane migration is heroic, but without experimental tests to determine the techniques that will lead to successfully making the whooping cranes independent of human fostering and migration, then we are not going to make fast progress. 

I liked Brooke Pennypacker’s comment in Wild Ones that “Humanity caused the problem to begin with, and so it’s very hard for humanity to solve the problem. Because it’s humanity!  … It’s not a bird project…It’s a people project. The birds are an excuse for doing something good” (p. 278). In the end, I am all for efforts that may be largely symbolic—we created the crisis, not on purpose exactly, but we created it. The least we can do is to try to help species return to being more common.  Maybe in the end, that will make us more human.  

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Soft Spot for Polar Bears, Martha Stewart, & a Good Story: Reading Jon Mooallem’s Wild Ones

Needle felted polar bear & penguin -- make your own with instructions at 

There are a few people who I remember the exact moment I met them, and since I do not seem to remember much these days, this seems important.  I remember when I first laid eyes on my husband—I can picture the frame of the door while I was walking through the office of the Forest Service and he was sitting in my seat waiting for me to return.  I remember meeting my future advisor, Ray Semlitsch, at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory where I was working as a technician and having lunch with him at an on-sight dining hall that I had never heard of—he was surprisingly down to earth given that everyone seemed to think he invented salamanders.  And, I remember my introduction to Martha Stewart (not actually in person), also while I was working at the Savannah River Ecology Lab in 1994/1995. Two interns from Drexel were mentioning that it was kind of boring in town after work—so I made the obvious suggestion:  You need to get a craft.  It wasn’t long before they were telling me that they had found a craft and they opened an issue of a new magazine, Living. I can picture them setting the magazine down before me in the SREL library and turning to the page of some sort of ornaments that looked like glass grapes.  It was clear, these were crafts for elitists. I probably told them so—at the time I was reading Gandhi’s autobiography & Walden and embracing the simple life, which conveniently coincided with my poverty wages.  But, it was not too many months more before I myself was subscribing to crafts for elitists and Martha Stewart became one of my heroes.  (Ray Semlitsch also thought Martha rocked, which I attribute to the fact that they both shared a love of things being just so.)

In subsequent years I came to the conclusion that Martha may be a little crazy.  Possibly a sociopath.  Who else would require that every ingredient be “the finest [chocolate, bourbon, coconut, salt, [fill in the blank] that you can afford”?  Who else would fill buckets with ice and evergreens that could be used as giant votives lining the walkway up to her house(s)?  Her level of collecting things has to be pathological.  It is certainly against everything we have been reading this semester addressing the biodiversity and climate CRISIS that directly or indirectly points to the need of fewer unnecessary items.  But, here she is in our book doing a documentary on the Churchill polar bears—and doing a damn good job of it, even if she did “go rogue.” You can see it here: or here:  (It’s good, but yes, we could still talk about her hat.) We need the Martha Stewarts on television saying things like, “and people still don’t believe in climate change” and showing the plight of biodiversity.  Martha does clearly love her animals—most people do. But mostly, the biodiversity crisis is off our radar. Maybe the Marthas get it on the radar for a minute, which may leave it knocking around inside our minds for much longer.

The fascinating aspect of Mooallem’s book so far is the power of story in influencing the perceptions of the public.  How you “spin” the story of polar bears can shift the way people view not only the plight of the bear, but how they view climate change.  He used the example of a rather horrific hunting story where Teddy Roosevelt’s hunting guide traps a bear for Roosevelt and ties it to a tree (meanwhile injury the animal)—Roosevelt refuses to shoot it and asks for the guide to put the animal out of its misery.  From this story springs the idea for the teddy bear, which shifts the view of the bear that were being widely eradicated as a threat to humans and livestock.  It’s not quite an accurate shift—hugging real bears can be hazardous for your health—but it is a positive portrayal.  Mooallem appears to be trying to get a balanced perspective on the natural world—polar bears may look cuddly, but they are serious predators capable of causing injury, which people seem to forget if they buy into the cuddly version too heavily. Martha seems to get it right—there is a real delight and thrill in seeing polar bears in person, but there is also respect for the predator and concern for their plight in this world that has got a little carried away with its self. She tells a good story that is firmly grounded in reality. (Also, of course, polar bears are good craft inspiration…see above.) While I’m admiring Martha again, it reminds me that maybe crafting is part of the solution—and if more elitists & regular folks crafted and made our own practical stuff (i.e., if we all learned how to do things again), it would reduce the need to ship all those clothes and unnecessary plastic objects from China, which might in the end help the polar bear and the rest of diversity. And DIY projects: good, clean fun.   

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

History Knocked on Your Door, Did You Answer: Klein’s This Changes Everything Part III

“I am part of the land.  I respect it, I love it and I don’t treat it as a useless object, as if I want to take something out of it and then the rest will be waste. Because I want to live here this year, next year, and to hand it down to the generations to come. In contrast, Eldorado, and any other mining company, they want to devour the land, to plunder it, to take away what is most precious for themselves.” And then they would leave behind, she said, “a huge chemical bomb for all mankind and nature.” –Melachrinin Liakou, activist against the gold mine in Halkidiki, Greece, quoted in This Changes Everything (p 342)

There is a lot about this book that hits home and that is very moving.  Section III is my favorite section—enlightening, motivating, and food for thought—as with all the books we’ve read so far (we are now half-way done), I like the ending.  Klein makes an argument that others have made, that love can save a place and inspire regular people to become activists. Janisse Ray makes a similar argument in Ecology of a Cracker Childhood when she returns to her childhood home amid the pines of southern Georgia—that land was the place where her bones were quite literally built, and that connection to and love of place, fractured as it is by human logging and development, means something.  Yet, so many of our lives become separated from the ecosystems that, at least in part, made us. I wonder if, imbedded in the return to local economies, is a philosophy of philopatry--returning after an education elsewhere back to the natal pond.  It certainly seems that Indigenous people have been a largely shining example of how connection to place emboldens their communities to stand up to big oil and coal.  Many of us have lost that connection to place—or are not fully aware of the ecosystem that was building our bones—or more likely, for the many ecosystems around the world that helped build our bones.  And we are so busy, that we are easily disconnected from the place around us. And as it is slowly chipped away at with new shopping centers, we will hardly notice.

One of the challenges of conservation crises is not only raising awareness about the important environmental issues, but inspiring or motivating the necessary changes in people’s behaviors or a change in their belief system.  When we started talking about science communication several years ago, it became clear that while we science-types are most comfortable offering “educational” outreach, changing people’s beliefs and behaviors is the key and that information alone may not be inspiring enough to alter entrenched beliefs or behaviors—it is no trivial task.  Even the people who make full time jobs out of raising awareness for health issues like smoking have a challenge in moving the behavioral response.  Dr. Valerie Ubbes at Miami U who is a health educator has said that in trying to educate the public through things like public service announcements (PSA), you know that one PSA will not cause people to stop smoking or eating sugar or to start buckling up or exercising. But, you are in it for the long-haul with each piece of information like a drip which eventually motivates change.  With climate change, we are out of time.  The drips have not worked and what is ahead is a flood (perhaps more inspiring?).  Klein’s book offers hope about how each one of us can contribute to making our small individual changes and also how we can be part of larger movements to end “taking without caretaking.”  Klein ends with the story of asking friends what she should ask Greece’s opposition party and someone suggested “Ask him: History knocked on your door, did you answer?”  I hope the answer is yes for each of us.  Klein has showed us where to start—anyone else ready for revolution? (Perhaps not this semester…I am weary, but perhaps that should not matter.)   

Saturday, October 10, 2015

It's a Monster World: Thoughts on Klein’s This Changes Everything Part II

According to French sociologist Bruno Latour, the real lesson of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein “is not, as is commonly understood, ‘don’t mess with mother nature.’  Rather it is, don’t run away from your technological mess-ups, as young Dr. Frankenstein did when he abandoned the monster to which he had given life.  Instead, Latour says we must stick around and continue to care for our ‘monsters’ like the deities that we have become.” –Naomi Klein, The Changes Everything (page 278)

Climate change has been on societies’ radar for decades, although I do not remember when it entered my ecological consciousness. Not high school (in the late 80s), when I first became concerned about risks of biodiversity. Nor college (in the early 90s) when I first became aware of amphibian population declines.  Maybe it was graduate school (in the rest of the 90s) or maybe it was always there in the background—a threat that seemed far off and something to start planning ahead for so that our grandchildren didn’t face a world vastly different from the one we were living in. But I do remember the moment when it first occurred to me that the scientists closest to the climate change data didn’t believe society was going to make the changes necessary.  I was a regional SETAC meeting at Miami University (sometime post 2004) when the keynote speaker was talking about the predicted climate  changes, which were familiar by that point, as well as the potential solutions of weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels (also familiar) and geoengineering solutions, which were not familiar and shocking.  It was at that moment when it occurred to me, they don’t think we can fix this. 

In Part II (Magical Thinking) of This Changes Everything, Klein's chapter on “Dimming the Sun” lays out the various ways people are considering avoiding climate change, aside from reducing greenhouse gas emissions:  fertilizing the oceans, reflecting light back into space by covering deserts or by putting tiny mirrors in the atmosphere with mirrors (and idea that was surely thought up by a clever kindergarten class and not actual scientists), or by pumping sulfate aerosols (like sulfur dioxide, the stuff of volcanos) into the stratosphere. She lays out the risks of these ideas and the risks of not having a catastrophic Plan B.  She presents it in a way that the risks are great enough that only a fool would move forward with one of these Plan Bs.  They are certainly plans that focus solely on human impacts and do not consider risks to the rest of the biota we share this planet with—and given that climate change poses great immediate threats to the most vulnerable humans, such approaches are understandable.

If you have any members of your family, you have probably watched one (or more!) of them make decisions for herself or himself (or for his/her immediately family) that cause problems and heartache.  Not just for themselves, but for the entire family who is often powerless to truly resolve the problem. Sometimes it unfolds for years with the same story repeated over and over again; time or the details change, but the story racked with crisis is more or less the same. The solution is often clear, but it is often too hard or too painful of an option, so the loved one and family members treat the symptoms and things will be better for a while.  And then, go to the repeat sign and play the tune again—perhaps the tune will change. In facing our personal and societal crises, we often fail to address the root of the predicament. Geoengineering solutions seem to be treating the symptom and not the disease. I am with Latour, you have to take care of your monsters, once they are created—Dr. Frankenstein was a completely irritating protagonist for this reason—but for heaven’s sakes, could we just stop creating monsters??  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Part I: Bad Timing

Because this [climate change] is a crisis that is, by its nature, slow moving and intensely place based.  In its early stages, and in between the wrenching disasters, climate is about an early blooming of a particular flower, an unusually thin layer of ice on a lake, the late arrival of a migratory bird—noticing these small changes requires the kind of communion that comes from knowing a place deeply, not just as scenery but also as sustenance, and when local knowledge is passed on with a sense of sacred trust from one generation to the next.” –Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (pages 158-159)

Last year in discussions about the Anthropocene with faculty across campus, one faculty was particularly ardent in his views that the solutions for climate change will not be solved with the same thinking that caused them and he lay the blame squarely at capitalism and the free market.  Even though he’s a perfectly respectable chap, and very likable, it was hard not to disagree with him at a gut level—I mean capitalism is not all bad and many of the alternatives are not particularly attractive.  While we can agree that excessive consumption—a consumer-based society—is problematic in so many ways, capitalism does create incentives for people to work hard and innovate, and that can be good. We are all invested—literally for those of us with retirement accounts—on an economy that continues to grow.  But as an ecologist, I also know that unlimited growth is not realistic and should not be expected.  How can economies continue to grow when resources are limited and the planet can only support an abundance of so many people on this planet? So, I am reading Naomi Klein’s book with great interest, a bit of alarm, and a bit of skepticism.  But, BUT, but, she makes a compelling case for how our economic system and policies have contributed to the global crisis and our failures to address the problems. 

A free-market without regulatory checks allows for industries and business to do whatever helps the bottom line—things that have economic consequences, like pollution of air and water, which incurs costs that they never have to pay.  How we’ve become a country polarized into thinking regulation is a black and white issue—all bad or all good—is perplexing.  It’s like putting no boundaries on your children and letting them do and have whatever they want—sucking all the resources from your resource base, which may compromise your and their future.  One of my wise parenting friends said that her mother always told her and her siblings “In this family, you do not always get everything you want, but you get what you need.” Boundaries, sensible regulation--they are essential and it completely makes sense to use them for the good of all.  Industries may not want to limit pollution, but we do not need them to want it—we just need them to do it.  Just because they do not pay the costs does not mean there are not costs.  How can citizens of earth support industry and the potential good it can do, when it we fail to set limits to minimize the harm.  There are industries currently where the costs outweigh the benefits, but we are failing to consider all the costs. 

I will also admit that I find parts of this book devastating—Obama’s failure to lead a way forward to more sustainable living and industries in the US when he could have made the argument about the failure of our current economic policy at the beginning of his presidency.  It’s hard to know if Klein is right, but she does make you wonder if that wasn’t a significant opportunity lost.  And she brings up Nauru as an example of “extractivism” without a conservation ethic or long-term planning for the ecological system or the social system.  It does seem like it’s a small scale example of the dangers that lie ahead without using our foresight to anticipate realistic outcomes of our current behaviors. 

The examples of Germany’s rapid switch to renewable energy sources, however, offers hope that with social will to drive political will, rapid change is possible. But, with so much energy invested in obscuring reality, I wonder if these transitions can happen before the devastating consequences begin.  And as Klein suggests (above), the changes we are experiencing are subtle and when we are in many cases very disconnected from our natural systems, then how will we notice?